The Gulfport Admirals and Pearl River Central Blue Devils made their respective communities proud this baseball season with memorable — and sometimes downright legendary — performances.
GHS won its first seven games and ended up losing just three regular season contests. Once the playoffs cranked up, Gulfport rolled through Petal and won a tight matchup against Ocean Springs before going three games against perennial power Oak Grove to claim the program’s first South State title since 2005. Junior Blake Johnson played an enormous role in the Admirals’ success as their ace, shutdown catcher and middle-of-the-order bat.
“He’s just a threat wherever you put him, on mound, behind the plate or batting,” GHS coach Jamie McMahon said of the Sun Herald’s 2017 Player of the Year.
Likewise, PRC’s Neil Walther knew exactly how to motivate his Blue Devils. During his 10 years in Carriere, PRC is undefeated in Game 3s with a whopping 10-0 mark. The Blue Devils overcame three different Game 3s this year, ultimately knocking off two-time defending state champion Oxford in a winner-take-all Game 3 to claim the program’s first Class 5A championship.
For guiding his team into PRC’s history books, Walther is the Sun Herald’s 2017 Coach of the Year, his second consecutive year to earn the honor.
The magnitude of what the Blue Devils achieved this year didn’t immediately sink in.
Walther took a couple minutes last week to reflect on going the distance against the Oxford Chargers and eliminating a loaded Hattiesburg team that many picked to come out of the South before the season.
“It was so big for these kids,” Walther said. “It’s hard to describe it. It was big for the community. Even when our teams aren’t successful, they come out and support us. We really have a good fan base. Our turnout at the finals was great — the MHSAA should want us back all the time — we made them TONS of money.
“You could tell they were really excited.”
Heading into the Oxford series, Walther was asked at the press conference in Jackson about being the “underdog.” The phrase “David vs. Goliath” was uttered. It didn’t sit well with the PRC skipper. After all, they had just eliminated a Tigers team that has Joe Gray, a projected top 10 pick in next year’s MLB Draft.
Walther went back and reiterated to his players that it didn’t matter who the Blue Devils played. What mattered was how they played. And in the end, PRC made the most plays when their backs were against the wall to come out victorious.
“They have a lot of faith in each other,” he said. “I don’t think a team can play in that many close games without believing in their teammates because it’s not going to be the same guy every time coming up to bat with the game on the line.
“It’s a different guy every time. I think it’s as much mental as it is physical.”
Senior pitcher Cade Lee was a perfect 8-0 this year for the Blue Devils. He didn’t mind crediting Walther and the other coaches for PRC’s success.
“He knows the game of baseball better than anybody I’ve ever been around. He’s just a cool guy who makes the game of baseball fun. That helps everybody to stay focused and stay in the game,” Lee said. “It was stuff you dream about since you were a kid, winning a state championship with all of your buddies. This was a team that all bought in to what the coaches were saying.”
Johnson knew entering the season he would play the bulk of the innings behind the plate but said he expected to maybe get six starts and mostly be used in relief on the mound. Instead he ended up being the Admirals’ ace, posting a 9-1 record with a 1.28 ERA.
Johnson downplayed his pitching dominance, instead opting to credit his defense.
“We had two really good gloves up the middle who made all the plays,” he said. “I really could just depend on them, so that helped a lot.”
Johnson still factored plenty into his pitching success. After all, you don’t strike out 111 in 71 1/3 innings because of your defense.
“He lived on locating his fastball and mixed in the breaking ball,” McMahon said of Johnson, whose velocity got up to around 88 miles per hour. “He was consistent with the strike zone. That was the biggest thing with him. He has a big downhill fastball that’s hard for a high school hitter to hit.
“When he was doing that, he was pretty good.”
One of his biggest moments on the mound came in Game 3 of the Class 6A South State series. Johnson came on in relief in the sixth inning with the Admirals clinging to a 6-2 lead. Johnson blew three pitches past the Oak Grove batter and posted a scoreless seventh to clinch the series.
In addition to handling the Admirals’ pitching staff and opposing batters, Johnson also hit .351 with 17 doubles, six home runs, 30 RBIs and a 1.158 OPS, which combines slugging (.675) and on-base (.483) percentages.
Johnson currently holds offers from Southeastern Louisiana and Tulane. Mississippi’s “big three” have also shown varying levels of interest, he said, but he’s in no rush to commit. Johnson said he’ll likely let his recruitment play out until the fall before making a decision.
Their title run ultimately came up short against Tupelo, but considering their returning talent Johnson and the Admirals are hopeful to give it another go in 2018.